Beginnings and Endings and Everything A-Swirl

I have been having many conversations with my [adoptive] mum recently about some very real problems that we are facing as a family. We are actually facing several problems but there is one that stands out and haunts us night and day.

One of our relatives faces a lot of challenges in their everyday life and this is having an unacceptable negative effect on others. This relative has always caused and/or attracted drama of some description (which is exhausting as I only like drama of the Lewis type) but the stakes are now extremely high.

In one of these conversations my mum voiced her upset: I just wanted to give a child a good life and I don’t know if I’ve made his life any better at all. I tried to reassure her that she had made a difference. I replied, completely honestly, that she had definitely made things better and that without her input his life would be significantly worse – who knows where we would be – and the situation now facing us and everyone else would also be far, far worse. I also pointed out that she had stayed true to her promise (I have no idea how – she’s a saint really) and was still involved, even though I think many people would understand it if she just completely wiped her hands of the situation. I think that many people would think she has done her bit; she can just let it all go now. But nope: she’s still there. And I can see that. And I thanked her.

But you see, this whole breaking-the-cycle thing is not something any of us can do on our own. My mum can’t do it. I can’t do it. A mental health professional can’t do it. And can it be done without the ability and willingness of those who seemingly want to perpetuate it? My life has long involved dealing with all sorts of (other people’s!) drama that puts EastEnders and Jeremy Kyle to shame. But the situation can in reality only be made less worse and by a whole collection of people acting together – and even then it’s hard because God things are complicated and hard.

We are adoptees, adopters, care leavers, birth family members and foster family members all trying to come to a solution. And you know what? Where are the barriers between us now?! The barriers are falling and our identities are dissolving and merging and changing. But there is a positive here – insofar as there is one – in that over the last couple of years a whole series of things (including this) has brought greater empathy and understanding all round and a shared sense of all of our experiences. We are now all changing places on the board and seeing it all anew.

But like anyone – whether that be a birth parent, an adopter, a care leaver, or anyone else – we can only do what we can with the resources we have. And ‘resources’ includes things such as mental and physical health as well as support networks, education, and income.

But some of our resources are impaired, including my own to some extent. I completely understand why one of the others, a care leaver, feels completely unable to get involved because to do so would necessitate engagement with social services. Back in the day their local authority made some utterly shocking decisions. In this particular care leaver’s case, I liken their reaction to the one you would get if you told an adult who had been abused by priests as a child (and this was covered up by the hierarchy) that in order to help they must let priests and the hierarchy back into their lives. I understand their reaction because I can also remember a time when the words Social Services or Social Worker made me feel sick to the core on an involuntary visceral level. But your own recovery has to come first: you cannot help anyone else if you yourself are drowning.

I just hope that our collective resources, and especially my own, will be enough.

But I must go now. But there is so much that I cannot even begin, let alone end. (I have not even begun).

I don’t know if all of this is the beginning or the end or the conclusion to what came before. Or maybe a bit in the middle of a never-ending cycle?

As I go to bed my mind un-exorcised, I am reminded of some lines from one of my favourite poems:

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.


Wordsworth, The Prelude


Goldfish Bowl

 A Riddle

I live my life in a goldfish bowl. I am observed and monitored from all sides. The things I do – and the things I don’t – are recorded. The things I say – and the things I don’t – are written down. I am carefully studied. All my actions, except the important ones, are deemed to have significance. My private conversations are the subject of people’s discussion. My flippant remarks are kept on file for a century. People interact with me in a choreographed manner: the state, books and others tell people what to say to me, what to do, and when to do it, all in an attempt to steer (or manipulate) my relationships. Those relationships that I do have need Official Approval to exist. I have no privacy. I say something – or I don’t say something (I am not told the rules) – and a game of whispers seals my fate. State representatives make decisions and hang them on my words. I must tread carefully: I am surrounded on all sides. Microphones are everywhere, ready to magnify my words beyond my intention. I am being observed. I am being scrutinised. I am being watched.

Who Am I?

Like most graduates of the care system, I knew very little privacy when growing up. I spent my time in a goldfish bowl being monitored by parents, carers, the school, social services, and everyone else I came into contact with. Everything I did was carefully studied and recorded. Actually, let me correct part of that: some things I did were carefully recorded. Actual facts (often irrelevant ones) were recorded alongside half-truths, blatant fabrications, bizarre interpretations, benign misunderstandings, and… whatever it is that got redacted. The post-truth era really was alive and well back then.

But I am not talking about the lies, the half-truths, and the redactions. I am talking about the horror of living in a goldfish bowl. Because let me tell you something: constant observation is horrific for the observed.

(Do I exist if I’m not being observed? I sometimes wished I didn’t exist. I wished I could be invisible like other children. Like normal children. Like actual children.)

Living in a goldfish bowl causes a lot of strain. Your relationships are affected as you know that all adults can and probably will inform social services about everything. The state’s thirst for knowledge about you is more important than your privacy.  Every time that you speak, you must remember that it’s not a private conversation: you may in fact be speaking to your social worker (or indeed any other similar person), who may write down a garbled version for posterity. It doesn’t matter if what you said is a safeguarding issue or not, it will have made its way to be recorded in Your Files.

It is particularly stressful if you are aware, as I was, that one wrong movement and your life might blow up in your face. When you are a child of the state, great weight is put onto everything you do (or don’t do – who even knows) by pseudo-psychologists. I once made the mistake of getting out a book and reading it to my birth mum during a contact session. This was of course recorded, and then interpreted negatively with regards my relationship with my sibling. Of course! No child in care ever liked reading! And no child in care had a contact session where – gasp! – the birth mother encouraged reading! Nope: it must be that there is something wrong with the sibling relationship.

And, of course, there is also the state representative – with no particular qualifications – who observed me for an entire hour and then came to a conclusion which they then repeated several times, with increasing authority each time. For, as we know, if you say something enough times it becomes true, and if you type it on official paper it becomes true quicker.

Observation doesn’t necessarily stop if you’re adopted. I found to my horror that adoptees can be gawped at and written about just as much as children in care. My parents would write things down about me (in my presence) and then put it into their file about me (without letting me see what they wrote). I found this odd then and I still do. I remember wondering if they were using it as a power thing. Of course, they interpreted most of the things I said or did (and also anything I didn’t say or do that was on their criteria of things I should say or do) as relating to my adoption, which is not only incorrect but utterly bizarre. But the effect was to make me feel as though I was not in a family home but in a psychiatric setting. That, in fact, goes for a lot of my care experience: you are constantly monitored and analysed, as though you are in a clinical, and not a domestic, setting.

These (mis)interpretations can have life-changing consequences. As an older child, I was acutely aware of this; I wasn’t stupid, even if some people assumed I was. The stress was exhausting. I remember trying to figure out how to act in contact sessions so as to get more contact sessions, and how to act around my new adoptive parents so as to have contact with my previous foster carers. It’s unbelievable when you think about it. Especially when you realise that no, it wasn’t paranoia: I was being observed, and important decisions were being made on the basis of these observations.

(How far does being observed change the thing being observed?)

(Are you paranoid if what you’re paranoid about is true?)

I remember being watched (sorry, ‘supervised’) during my Goodbye Contact. For the uninitiated, a Goodbye Contact is when a child who is going to be adopted says goodbye, for the last time, to their birth family. My Goodbye Contact is the last time I ever saw my own mother. (Goodbye Contact deserves capitals for this reason, Goddamit. Although my preferred name is Funeral Day. It is the day you say goodbye). Imagine, for a second, that you are seeing a dying relative for the last time and that everything you are doing and saying during this meeting is being watched and you know that it will then be recorded, discussed with other people, and then left on a file somewhere. (And, of course, that this whole scenario has been dreamed up by The Powers That Be for your own good. And, of course, that years later you have to fight The Powers That Be to see the records of this day, for reasons that remain obscure). Insult, injury, and kicking a dog when it’s down all come to mind.

There is no such thing as a private moment when you are a child in care. There is no such thing as tenderness, grief, privacy, or emotion. We are all robots, ready to take on whatever exterior is demanded by our latest set of carers, whether they’re atheist, Jewish, Catholic, strict, easy-going, Tory, Labour, or rich or poor.

There is also no such thing as a normal relationship. I was very aware, at times, that the adults around me were acting in a particular way because they wanted to cause a particular effect. People attempted to control or re-orientate my relationships by choreographing my interactions with them. For example, I was painfully, excruciatingly and embarrassingly aware of how everyone was acting during my Goodbyes (sorry, ‘introductions’): they were all acting as they were ‘supposed’ to act in order to make it easier for me (newsflash: there is nothing that can make it easier). This was of course all confirmed when a month after I moved in with my new parents I came across a book about children moving from care to adoption. My parents had underlined some parts about where and when visits with the previous foster carers should be and that sort of thing. I felt sick – sick and controlled. I felt sorry for them that they had to look at this book rather than talk to me. But I’m glad I found that book because it helped me understand where my parents were coming from. But above all it made me realise that they really didn’t get it. I could see through the manipulation (I am not making a value judgement with this word, just describing) before coming across this book and it was, to use a phrase I didn’t know at the time, to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. I felt that they were trying to stick to a script in a desperate attempt to make everything go right: – if only we do P in X, Y, Z order, then all will be fine. Alas, that’s not how it works or how it worked. I don’t doubt their sincerity of intention, but all it did was add to my feelings of being watched, monitored, and manipulated.

But we all participated in this. I was also conscious of being observed, so I read the book in order to figure out how I should act (and not act) so that my parents would understood what was going on. We all participated in the dance – dancing in the goldfish bowl.

My experience of being constantly observed affects me even now. I cannot stand it when my GP makes notes: it is, again, someone in a position of power making a record about me. Interviews are hard for the same reason! I once picked up a book because of its title ‘panopticon’. I didn’t even know what it was about but the title struck me like a truck-load of falling bricks.  I knew what the word meant but had never come across a book with the title. Why did it strike me? Because I felt that the word encapsulated my experiences as a child in care – my experiences of being under constant observation. As it happens, the book has a theme about care. Who’d’ve thought?! When I saw the title, I thought about care – and it had a theme about care. That shows not only the power of words but it also suggests that I am perhaps not the only person to have ever made such a connection.

But what strikes me most is this: in spite of all their watching, they did not really see.

Answer: I am, of course, a child of the state. I am a LAC, a CIC, a PP child. I have corporate parents and am a public child. But I am, really, just a child.